How often have we seen golfers do erratic things at the most inopportune times? Ernie Els made a six-putt at the first hole in Augusta a few years ago. Such poor skill execution can often be seen in golf – known as “the yips”. This often occurs when golfers feel under pressure and anxious during performance.
Why was Alex Ferguson so successful?
So we recognise that Alex has been an inspirational leader in the football world for the past 30 years or more, winning numerous titles with Aberdeen and Manchester United. So many managers have come and gone in this time, many unsuccessful. So is there something that Ferguson happens to be good at? While he may not have realised the strength of its impact, his leadership had a direct impact on the reactions and performance levels of his players.
In 2007, the All-Blacks were set to win their first Rugby World Cup since the inaugural tournament in 1987. They led France 13 to 3 at half time in the quarter final. In the second half, it went a little pear shaped for them and they lost 20 18 in the process. Star player Anton Oliver likened the feeling afterwards to a death in the family. The expectation was so great, the result so damaging and hurtful. The players had choked due to the fear of failure – a crippling form of anxiety and performance stress brought on by huge expectation.
We are now looking looking at a situation in the western world where obesity is almost an epidemic. Reports suggest that over 35% of people in the USA (National Health and Examination Survey (NHANES)) in 2010. Reports also suggested that about 25% of people in Britain (NHS 2008) and Ireland (OECD 2010) are reported to be obese with levels of growth estimated at about 1% per annum. It indicates a drastic rise from 1993 levels, when just 13 per cent of men and 16 per cent of women reported to be obese.
Over time, we have seen how winning teams always seem to have a very positive team ethic and culture. While having a positive team culture doesn't necessarily guarantee success in the sense of winning silverware, it generally ensures that a team gets the most out of itself.
Very often, there is only a minimal difference in skill and or fitness levels between the top few teams in any given competition. As such, the differentiator between being successful and not is often influenced by the level of selfless work-rate that individual members of a team are prepared to take on during the course of a game.
Typically, this selfless work-ethic is directly influenced by the level of team cohesion among team-mates; and team cohesion and work ethic is directly influenced by team culture. As such, the culture that a team management sets around a team is critical to producing an environment where the players are willing to forego individual ego and work hard in the best interests of the group.
The story goes that the victorious Mayo team of 1951, while passing through Foxford during the All-Ireland celebrations, failed to pay due respects to a passing funeral. Enraged, a local priest cursed the county team, that while any member of the 1951 team lived, Mayo would never win another All-Ireland. It remains unbroken — despite the team reaching the Final on nine occasions since then. They have either completely collapsed on the day or been undone by a series of other unfortunate events. 66 years on, only two of that 1951 team remain.
Let’s not cloud the facts. Real Madrid were reigning champions and were the bookies favourites to win. Real Madrid have the players, the money and the power to regularly contend for the champions league final. Liverpool on the other hand were coming from a lower base, albeit one where they were lighting up the premier league with some electric football. Despite being underdogs, they were fancied by many in the football world, as over 160 million viewers waited in anticipation of a cliff-hanger.
Great athletes inspire. Kids make them their idols and dream of one day emulating them while adults thrill at the sight of watching the very best. Lesser athletes, through lack of ability may never become as good as the champions, but they strive to improve themselves copying their behaviours or what they know of them.
There is a group often overlooked however. Only a certain volume can make it to the elite, but there is a wide layer hovering below the line that are almost as talented (sometimes even more so) that we never hear of. These, we know generally as the “nearly men” – The ones equally talented growing up but fail to reach their potential and end up in the lower leagues.
So what is it about those that make it as opposed to those that don’t just quite get there?
A golfer puts the ball on the tee, scans the terrain and consciously makes a statement to self – “keep it away from the water”.
Research has shown an interesting thing about the way golfers often make the exact error they are specifically trying to avoid. When a golfer places the ball on the tee, he would often tell himself to aim in a certain direction while being conscious not to miss either left or right due to water hazards or bunkers. In a non-pressurised situation, a skilled golfer would invariably succeed in executing what they wanted to do with the ball.
I often get asked about how to get the most out of a group of players – from fitness, mental or tactical perspective. Some might ask about technical things such as various aspects of fitness or game plans while others might get frustrated about their players putting in sub-maximal effort. Many wonder what they should say to their players to get them to mentally “peak”.
The truth in fact is that most often, you don’t need to say anything at all – or indeed what you say is often of little importance in comparison to how you say it or how players feel treated in general.
As a practicing performance psychologist, I often get asked about how best it is to motivate a group. My answer often starts with a question or two!
“How do you relate to the players? What is it the group dynamic like? Does the management foster a positive social dynamic? Players most often play because they enjoy the sport. They turn up because they enjoy the sport and the challenge it presents.
They turn off it very often due to a poor relational or social dynamic – often fostered by inadequate managerial skills or through weak management facilitating or allowing a vacuum for dissent, player cliques or player unrest.
Stuart Lancaster is considered to have one of the best rugby coaching minds in the world. He has huge experience at the top level of professional rugby and has been involved in numerous successful teams.
He began his coaching career while working as a PE teacher in Kettlethorpe High School in England. The nature of a PE teaching role just naturally draws you into coaching through extra-curricular sports teams. He had plenty of success as a coach across a variety of sports including soccer and cricket at school’s level as well as rugby, the sport for which he became best known.
Sport psychology is often used as a support within a high-performance sporting structure. As its benefits and merits are ever more recognised and respected, some amateur clubs are on the lookout for ways in which they can use such support – often in an ad-hoc capacity. With little knowledge, many are unsure where to go or who to look for to provide such a service.
In fairness, there is very little regulation of the area presently and it is a little bit of a minefield in finding someone that can add value to your team or organisation.
Recently I was presented with the challenge of addressing a group of parents and teachers of a cluster of schools in a midlands town – primary and secondary around the whole area of mental health and young people. This prompted me to investigate some of the major issues driving the growth in incidence of youth mental health issues.
We have come to know the current Dublin football team as one of the greatest GAA teams of all time. They have overtaken Mick O'Dwyer's Kerry team of the 70's and 80's having just annexed the first 5 in a row of All-Ireland inter-county senior football titles.
They are obviously a very talented group, but there was always a talented group available in Dublin. They just sometimes never realised their potential. Marshalled by Jim Gavin, this article takes a deeper look at the psychology behind their success.
Performance psychologist - accredited with Irish Institute of Sport